To the general public, the name Ghost in the Shell doesn’t mean much. Most would have never come across the films, Manga, or television series without actively looking for them, or having a friend expose them to it one Friday night over pizza. However, whether they realise it or not, it’s legacy runs deep, and has infected countless blockbusters since the 90s. The Matrix (1999) counts it as a major influence, and those familiar with both can certainly spot the shot for shot recreations on screen. To those that have never been exposed to the franchise, or personally don’t care, Then Ghost in the Shell (2017) is a fine cyberpunk film, with a cliched plot of the ‘forgotten past’, but fantastic visuals, and worth checking out just for them. A reminder that Weta Workshops produced incredibly practical effects, that are certainly worthy of the franchise name. If you don’t care about the legacy, then go ahead and enjoy. It’s certainly more entertaining than Power Rangers (2017).
A little background first. The original manga, Ghost in the Shell, or as it’s originally known in Japan, Kokaku Kidotai (Mobile Armored Riot Police), was created by Masamune Shirow in 1989. The story follows Section 9, a counter terrorist group working directly under the Prime Minister of Japan. The plot of the original manga, followed several smaller assignments, that went on to inspire the plots for a sequel film and the television series in places, and building up to the main incident, the immergence of the Puppet Master, and the Major’s ultimate fate. Masamune Shirow is most well-known for, honestly, his depictions of machinery and graphic erotica, a main reason why the Major stripes naked to use her thermoptic camouflage. Currently, to coincide with the release of the 2017 film, deluxe editions of all three manga baring the Ghost in the Shell branding have been released in English, and while they bare the deluxe title, they are in fact censored, quiet possibly due to the 2017 films 12A rating, and the possibility that children might want to read the source material. If you wish to read them uncensored, look for the older copies. For the record, I read the uncensored books at the age of 12, and I’m fine. Well, I’m spending my Sunday complaining about a big budget Sci-fi, Scarlet Johansson film online, so make of that what you will. The tone of the original manga is actually more comedic than you would expect, with plenty of scenes depicting the Major and her crew, post mission, drinking and a joking around. The more serious tone the franchise is more known for, developed naturally in the book, as the mission became more serious and motives are questioned. Over all, the book is a solid read, and does an excellent job of world building, before delving into serious discussions on the singularity and what makes us human.
That final note, the nature of singularity and what makes us human, drew famed anime director, Mamoru Oshii to want to explore these themes on the big screen. Adapting the books main plot, into 1995s Ghost in the Shell. Replacing Shirow’s cheesecake and gag elements, with Oshii’s dry philosophising, the 1995 film is a cult classic. Despite the 2017 film stating in its credits that it is basing itself on the original manga, shots and scenes are recreated, or at least attempted, from the 1995 film. The Major’s iconic dive off the top of a building, as well as the opening construction of her body, are spot on (mostly, I’ll get into that later). The Major is far more serious throughout, with her main dilemma being her overall understanding that her body is government property, that when she retires, she will be left with only her soul, a ghost wandering through the net. She knows who and what she is, never having any doubts over it, but she feels a lack of ownership over herself, and especially her body. She wonders at one point weather or not her soul was manufactured, but holds on to the fact that her “thoughts and memories are unique only to [her], and [she] carries a sense of [her] own destiny” (This speech on the boat by the way, is fantastic, I honestly had it on a poster growing up). The films ending provides her with an escape for this, and salvation for the films ‘villain’.
Following on from Oshii’s 1995 film, came a video game tie in (which is honestly not important right now, and not that good), a sequel, and then the highly praised two season television series, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, and it’s follow up film. While the franchise continued in the form of Ghost in the Shell: Arise, I don’t particularly feel qualified to talk about Arise, as I only saw the first film (Though it is worth stating that the 2017 film references Arise, with the Major’s red clothing in the bar scene). It didn’t particularly grab me, and acts as a prequel to everything. It is worth noting that each iteration of the franchise, takes place in its own universe. Now. Why am I ok with these, and not the 2017 film? Quite simply, while each of the iterations are largely self-contained, they all remain true to the world and characters. The Major in Stand Alone Complex, could very easily be as cynical and dry as her 1995 counterpart, in fact in times, it felt like the 1995 iteration was what the Major could become.
The Major portrayed in the 2017 film, is not the Major. While Scarlett Johansson is a good actress and could play the Major very well, though I fear she is becoming type cast following Lucy and her role as The Black Widow in the Avengers films. The Major they portray here is stated to be special because she is ‘the first of her kind’, her unique qualities do not come from who she is, they come from what they made her. The Major’s strength came from her determination, her morals, and her naturally commanding presence. By making cyborgs a new thing in this world, making her the only one of her kind, they took away the actual character of the Major. Towards the middle/end of the film, they reveal who she was before, the girl she was, and what they took from her. Honestly, the character they referenced and described, not including her anti-cyborg stance, was the Major we should have had. Given how long this film has been in development, the acknowledgment of the character we should have had, was honestly a gut-punch. The reveal of her old room and her relationship with the film’s villain provided an even greater level of despair.
In the films favour however, their portrayal of Aramaki, Ishikawa, Saito, and Togusa are spot on. Though Togusa’s aversion to cyberization is less of a notable trait with a world that considers full body cyberization as a completely new and rare condition. Batou is also considerably well done, with one notable irritation. His eyes. Batou’s unique eyes are a sign of his military service, serving as a Ranger, defending his country from a previous war, often hinted to be the Third World War. In the 2017 films, they depict a scene in which the Major saves Batou from an explosion, and the resulting blast severely damages his eyes. By taking away his military service, and creating a situation where he has to be saved, it takes something away from his character, while he still appears as somewhat brave and fairly jokey at times, it takes away an element of bravery to those that know it.
With the initial trailers for the 2017 film, it appeared as though the films villain would be a re-interpretation of The Puppet Master, a character that originates in the original comic, and becomes the central focus for Oshii’s 1995 film. The Puppet Master, by his own admission, is an A.I. that gained sentience, a thinking mind. By hacking into a manufacturing company, he builds himself a body, and eventually finds himself in the custody of Section 9, begging for asylum as a sentient being, questioning them over whether or not he has a right to live if he can think for himself. The company that is responsible for his original programming claim that he is a terrorist that have been using their technology to reach havoc and use this as an excuse to take him out. The original Puppet Master is an exploration of the singularity, and a parallel to the Major’s own struggles. One has a body and a soul, but only fears what will happen when she is left with only her soul, while the other now has a body and soul, but doesn’t feel ownership over either and wants recognition for what he is. Despite using the Puppet Master’s iconography, this is not the Puppet Master. The film does not address the singularity. The villain of the film is in fact, a corruption and a miss interpretation of the Stand Alone Complex character, Hideo Kuze. While at the start of the second season of Stand Alone Complex, Kuze is stated to be a villain and a terrorist. The character of Kuze is deeply connected to the Major’s past, granted the 2017 film did try to include this with flashbacks to their pre-cyberization past. The film presents him as an experiment gone wrong, and a precursor to the experiment that created the Major. To those that know the relationship between the Major and Kuze, this could not be further from the truth. Their connection and how they both became cyborgs are revealed in Episode 11, Season 2 of Stand Alone Complex, beautifully titled Affection. Their connection relates to their childhood, the incident that made them both orphans and brutally destroyed both of their human bodies in different ways. The story is beautiful and is worth watching even on its own. The signifier of a paper crane, encapsulating their story. Admittedly, in the 2017 film, a paper crane is shown in the Major’s old room, at once bringing me to tears upon seeing it, as a reminder of the story that was and the acknowledgement that the writers of the 2017 film, knew the story, and chose to ignore it.
The 2017 film contains multiple references to Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, the 2004 sequel to Oshii’s 1995 film. While the minor references are well done, such as the Basset Hound Gabriel, the nodes to the main plot were heart breaking to watch, as those that know it are aware that a child sex slavery ring is blatantly being ignored. The Geisha bot (or Gynoid (doll-like sex robots)) shouting ‘Help Me’, and the inclusion of, while not named as such, Dr. Haraway, felt empty due to their needless incorporation in a story they had no business taking part in.
Finally, and still attempting to avoid major spoilers, the closing credits brought me to tears as they decided to include the original chants from the 1995 film. Kenji Kawai’s piece is not nonsense chanting as many may think, it is in fact a wedding song. The original use of the song In the 1995 film, is meant to symbolise both the joining of the Major’s organic mind, and cybernetic body, and finally the ‘marriage’ of the Major and the Puppet Master. It’s use in the 2017 film, felt almost insulting. Placed at the end of the film in the hopes of appeasing the original fans.
Overall, as a standalone film, it’s generic but memorable, with some fantastic practical effects, that would likely be overlooked and forgotten if not for the inclusion of Scarlett Johansson. However, as an entry in the Ghost in the Shell franchise, it stands hollow. Paying lip service at best and straying away from many of the themes that the 1995 film brought to light and explored. I have no doubt that at some point in the scripting process, a faithful entry into the universe was conceived. However, it seems that the fear that the general public would be lost, and a desire for more box office draw than franchise loyalty, we are left with a hollow and cliched shell, with no ghost.
Ghost in the Shell (2017) is in Cinemas Now.